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Researchers discover Achilles’ heel in drug-resistance bacteria

New research published in scientific journal, Nature, reveals an Achilles’ heel in the defensive barrier which surrounds drug resistant bacteria cells.

The new findings will make way for a new wave of drugs that kill superbugs by bringing down their defensive walls rather than attacking the bacteria, meaning that bacteria may not develop drug resistance at all.

The team of researchers investigated a type of bacteria called ‘gram negative bacteria’ which is resistant to antibiotics because of its cells’ impermeable lipid-based outer membrane. The outer membrane acts as a defensive barrier against attacks from the human immune system and antibiotic drugs. It allows the pathogenic bacteria to survive, but removing this barrier causes the bacteria to become more vulnerable and die.

Until now, little has been known about exactly how the defensive barrier is built. The new findings reveal how bacterial cells transport the barrier building blocks to the outer surface.

Lead author Ph.D student HaoHao Dong, from the University of St Andrews said:

“The really exciting thing about this research is that new drugs will specifically target the protective barrier around the bacteria, rather than the bacteria itself. Because new drugs will not need to enter the bacteria itself, we hope that the bacteria will not be able to develop drug resistance in the future.”

The new discovery comes after a recent warning from the World Health Organisation that antibiotic-resistant bacteria is spreading globally, causing severe consequences.

Professor Changjiang Dong, from the University of East Anglia said:

“We have identified the path and gate used by the bacteria to transport the barrier building blocks to the outer surface. Importantly, we have demonstrated that the bacteria would die if the gate is locked. This is really important because drug-resistant bacteria is a global health problem. Many current antibiotics are becoming useless, causing hundreds of thousands of deaths each year. The number of super-bugs are increasing at an unexpected rate. This research provides the platform for urgently-needed new generation drugs.”

‘Structural basis for outer membrane lipopolysaccharide insertion’ is published in the journal Nature on 18 June, 2014.


Notes to editors

For more information, a copy of the paper, or to request an interview with Haohao Dong, please contact the Press Office.

Issued by the University of St Andrews Press Office.
Contact Victoria Herd, Communications Co-ordinator, tel 01334 462530 or email vah4@st-andrews.ac.uk

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